traci's lists of ten

Traci's 28th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Write About Computer Viruses

Posted to WPA-L, Tech-Talk, AACW-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 07/16/00.

Friday, I left the office at 12:30, went out to the car, put the key in the ignition, and it refused to start. So, I got to spend several hours, sitting in the Saturn dealer, waiting on the verdict. I wasn't exactly prepared to be sitting there, so I had to go through my bags to find something to do (that didn't require the Internet —eeek!). I settled on rewriting this list, originally the Year 2000 list.

About six weeks ago, I looked over this Year 2000 list, shortly after some virus scare, and realized that the questions could be easily modified to focus on computer viruses rather than the Year 2000. These assignments would be particularly topical the next time a major virus gets media attention. If/when that happens, feel free to adjust the assignments, replacing references to the Melissa virus or the strains of the Love Bug virus with the name of the virus making the current rounds.

  1. [STYLE & PERSUASION] Write an analytical essay that explores the stylistic choices and persuasive techniques used in a company's press releases and/or other public statements related to viruses (or to a specific virus).

    For example, consider this excerpt from a Microsoft statement on a strain of the Melissa virus: "Infection occurs when a user opens the infected Word document and chooses to "Enable Macros" or already has macro security set to Low (Word 2000) or disabled (Word 97) in which case the macro is run automatically. It is important to note that the default Word 2000 macro security setting is "High" which silently disables unsigned macros like this Melissa.U variant. By default Word 97 always prompts the user before enabling potentially dangerous macros." ( The author is explaining that how the virus works— why have they gone to the trouble of adding the explanation? Do you understand the explanation? Why has the company chosen to write all in third person?

    For your writing assignment, ask these kinds of questions for a complete document that you've found. How does the statement use explanations and description? Is the document "user-friendly"? Does the statement rely on legalistic language or technical jargon? Think about the company's purpose and audience for the document. Why has the company chosen the particular strategies that are used in the document?

  2. [IN THE NEWS] Find three articles about computer viruses. If possible, find articles with different attitudes about the issues involved, but ideally that all deal with the same virus (or viruses). Analyze the articles, in particular looking at the author's purpose, audience, and writing situation. What is the author's point of view? How is the author's point of view communicated in the article? How does the author's point of view affect the way that the ideas are discussed? What names are used? What details are included? What is explained — and what isn't? Is there any difference between articles about the virus that you find online and those that you find in printed resources?

    [TEACHING STRATEGY: Simplify this assignment by choosing the two or three articles for students to focus on, so that you will not need to be familiar with all the articles they discuss.]

  3. [DANGER! DANGER!] Find two articles, essays, or stories that discuss the dangers of a particular virus — you might find a newspaper report or a magazine article that discusses the first appearance of a recently discovered (or released) virus for one piece — you're looking for one of the first reports on the virus. For the second piece, find an article that discusses the same virus, at least one week after the initial report (that is, after the virus solutions and prevention are in place for the particular virus you're considering).

    Compare the way that the dangers of the virus are discussed in your older article to the ways that the same issues are discussed in the more recent article. Look particularly at the difference between facts and opinions or speculation. Consider the language that is used, the details that are included, and the explanations that are used. well-founded or alarmist?

  4. [SCI-FI] Write your own science fiction account of the way that a virus might affect society. Speculate and dream all you want, but relate your ideas to the facts that we know about technology and the ways that viruses usually work. If this seems like a crazy idea, think about the movie _Independence Day_, where a virus saves the world. Be sure to focus your discussion — you could easily write a novel if you tried to cover everything, but you only need to write a four-page paper. Don't try to talk about everything that could happen; you'll become overwhelmed. You might write from your personal perspective (what will happen to you?). Or you could write about what happens at our school, to the police department in town, and so forth.

  5. [NAMING] "A rose by any other name...." Look at the variety of names used for kinds of viruses. Recently, we've had the Melissa virus, the Love Bug virus, the Happy99 virus. Names for categories of viruses include Trojan Horses, Worms, and Zoo Viruses. What about the fact that they're called "viruses" in the first place, and when one affects your computer, you're "infected"? How do the names differ? Take a look at who uses which name. What does the name that is used tell you about the virus itself? Write a paper that explores the way that naming affects the way that we think about the virus involved.

    You might start by looking at the Virus Naming Conventions page on the Symantec web site, at . As that page explains, "virus names consist of a Prefix, the Name, and often a Suffix" — Your job in this assignment is to look at "the Name" part of that convention. You can find lists of virus names in the McAfee Virus Information Library at or the Symantec Virus Encyclopedia at A list of virus databases is available on the CERT Computer Virus Resources page at

    [Alternately, you could have writers consider the subject lines of recent viruses, since that is where the names for the recent variants of the Love Bug virus got their names. Why did the virus creators use the subject lines that they did?]

  6. [RESEARCH] Write a short research or I-search paper on something you're interested in or a system that you rely on and its vulnerability to viruses. You might examine the computer equipment that you own, your bank's accounting system, our school's class scheduling system, accounting system, or QCA tracking system, the local electric company, or your car's on-board computer. Think about the ways that the resources you find talk about their protection systems. What do they do to make you feel secure? Does your research show that the system is as safe as the public information about the system's protection says it is? How can you tell? For your paper, examine how the product or system ensures that it's protected against viruses and what it might need to do to be even more secure.

  7. [SATIRE] Write a satire that explores an issue related to viruses. You might write a parody that talks about the dangers that people must be prepared for. You could write satirical instructions telling someone how to test a computer or a piece of software for possible infection. Write a solution to a particular kind of virus, using Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" as your model. Whatever you choose, pay attention to the relationship between the real facts you know about viruses and the satirical details that you include in your paper. What makes a satire good is its relationship to the real world.

  8. [ADS] Look at the web sites (or other advertisements and descriptions) for virus protection software or upgrades (for instance, an upgrade to Microsoft Outlook that protects against the Love Bug virus). How do the sites talk about viruses and about their products or services? What persuasive strategies and appeals do they use? Do you notice argumentative fallacies? How do they try to convince the reader that they can help prepare machines and system? Write an analysis of one of these sites that explores the argumentative strategies and techniques that the company uses. Popular virus protection software sites include McAfee's site at, the Symantec site at, Aladdin's site at, and Dr. Solomon's site at

  9. [THE GOVT SAYS...] Compare the virus-related statements posted by different governmental agencies (or by different governments)? What rhetorical strategies do they have in common? What differences do you see? What are the goals and audience for the statements? How does the statement use explanations and description? Is the document "user-friendly"? Does the statement rely on legalistic language or technical jargon? Write an analytical paper that discusses the way that the agency involved presents their details on computer viruses.

    For instance, consider this information from the U.S. Department of State's Daily Press Briefing on Thursday, May 4, 2000. The speaker was Richard Boucher. Boucher is responding to questions about the Love Bug virus. In some parts of his comments, it's clear that his words are unpolished and unplanned, but when he mentions the difference between classified and unclassified computer systems, his phrasing becomes more stiff. At first, Boucher says, "They immediately took steps to, first, cut ourselves off, cut our - what I'm talking about here is unclassified systems, so systems that interact with the Internet or that get email from outside." As he continues and clarifies, Boucher states: "And it did not get into the classified system, which is a wholly separate system that does not touch elsewhere but, in fact, all of us have received notices on the classified system as well to watch out for this and not to open it and not to use it" (originally available at, no longer online). There's a bit of a difference between his first reference which states "what I'm talking about here is unclassified systems" and this second, where he clarifies the servers a bit, "the classified system, which is a wholly separate system that does not touch elsewhere." Mr. Boucher is trying to show that the State Department's information is still safe. Just saying that the classified system was separate wasn't adequate for the speaker. Saying that it was a "separate" system should have been enough, but Boucher adds that it's "WHOLLY separate" and then redundantly adds that it "does not touch elsewhere." Boucher's phrasing here suggests that the agency is worried that the public will think national security has been breached by the virus. Choose a government page, press release, or other article or speech to analyze. Look at the way that the information is presented and think about the effect that the page will have on readers.

    You might look at the Internet Hoaxes pages by the Computer Incident Advisory Capability pages for the Department of Energy at or the Federal Computer Incident Response Capability pages at

    [TEACHING NOTE: It has been very difficult to find any statements about computer viruses as I've been working on this list. Students will have a hard time completing this assignment unless a specific virus has been recently in the news. It seems that the government sites are removing information about the virus soon after the events (which might make for an interesting research project, by the way).]

  10. [BLAME] Consider the politics of blame associated with the discussion of a particular virus. Even the most objective article makes someone responsible for the situation — examine an article that discusses the virus and note who is blamed. What kind of language is used to describe the situation? What facts and details are used? What's at stake for the author (that is, the person or company talking about the virus)? How does the author's position relate to who is blamed for what? Compare where the problems have actually come from and the source that is described in the article you are analyzing.

    The language used in discussions of viruses can be loaded. A Wired report, titled "Windows-Haters Crow Over Worm" provides several examples. Included in that article are this words by Seldolivaw Ssov: ""The point is that the root cause of these mass virus proliferations is a pathetically insecure email client foisted upon the public by a certain evil monopoly whose name I need not mention" (,1768,36194,00.html). Ssov calls Outlook "a pathetically insecure email." According to Ssov, Outlook doesn't have simple security problems or something basic like a security hole — it's "pathetically insecure." Further, Ssov suggests that people aren't choosing to use the software on their own. Instead, Outlook is "foisted upon the public by a certain evil monopoly" Look for the same sort of language in the article that you're analyzing and think about the relationship between the language that is used and the way that the language constructs the situation that is being discussed.

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on July 16, 2000.